Iraqi militants have seized two provincial capitals in two days as they continue a lightning offensive that is almost effortlessly removing a wide swath of northern Iraq from government control.
On June 11, the Sunni-fundamentalist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control of the Iraqi city of Tikrit and freed hundreds of prisoners. That was just hours after the militants seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, in three days of fighting on June 6 to 9 that routed the Iraqi army so completely that it left stocks of weapons behind.
The ISIL has also taken over a major oil refinery at Baiji and is reported to have moved close to Kirkuk.
The speed of the advance by the ISIL, an Al-Qaeda spin-off group that for months has also held Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, is raising urgent questions about the state of Iraq's army and its ability to continue to secure the country just 2 1/2 years after the U.S. withdrawal.
Some experts say that the routing of the army in Mosul is symptomatic of both the local difficulties it faces fighting in the north and of deeper problems within the Iraqi forces.
Crispin Hawes, a Middle East expert with Teneo Intelligence, a U.S.-based political-risk-advisory service, notes that, in the north, the army has been suffering from declining morale and desertions for months. This comes as it has battled the ISIL in Fallujah and around Ramadi without gaining ground against a foe that is well armed and highly motivated.
Desertions are reported to be particularly high among Sunni soldiers, whose homes are in Sunni-dominated central and northern Iraq. On June 10, "The New York Times" quoted a security analyst who works with the Iraqi government as saying privately that, before the troops dissolved in Mosul, the Iraq army already was losing as many as 300 soldiers a day between desertions, deaths, and injuries.
The ISIL has been able to skillfully play off discontents among the Sunni population over what many see as their marginalization under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government -- a discontent that reaches into the armed forces.
"There are loyalty issues involving predominantly Sunni Arab units now largely administered by Shi'ite officers following the number of purges of Sunni officers over the past three years under the Maliki government," Hawes notes.
The ISIL represents itself as fighting on behalf of the Sunni community against Malilki's Shi'ite-dominated government. The ISIL, which seeks to carve out a regional caliphate, or Islamic state, in Iraq and the Levant, is led by an Iraqi Sunni and gained strength and weaponry while fighting in Syria before expanding its operations southward.
At the same time, the Iraqi army in the north is also afflicted by low morale among Shi'ite soldiers, who are mostly from the south of the country and have neither a regional nor communal identity with the populations they are defending. Those populations, in addition to Sunni Arabs, include minority Kurdish and Turkoman communities.
Hawes says the lack of identity between the majority Shi'ite army and the northern areas it defends is compounded by the fact that nationwide Iraq is suffering from its highest levels of sectarian-based violence since 2008, when the country was emerging from the brink of a civil war.
"Predominantly Shi'a units would feel less loyalty to, or less incentive to, stay and protect a population that they have increasingly come to view as inimical to them," says Hawes.
There are also reports of unhappiness among soldiers more generally as a result of the underpayment or nonpayment of wages for several months, particularly in the north.
Lack Of Resistance
That cocktail of problems now seems to have been enough to cause Iraqi soldiers in Mosul to abandon the city with such speed this week that the ISIL was able to seize stocks of military hardware that reportedly included tanks and helicopters as well as ammunition and light weaponry. The Iraqi army was reduced to bombing some of its own stores to keep the militants from seizing more.
Ordinary citizens who fled the city say they were shocked by the soldier's lack of resistance.
"We found military personnel discarding their uniforms onto the street, discarding their weapons, and changing into civilian clothes," one Mosul resident, who identified himself as Abu Rayan, told Radio Free Iraq. "They even abandoned their vehicles and walked away. We didn't see anyone carrying a weapon or firing."
With the country now suffering by far the worst military setback for Iraqi forces since U.S. troops left at the end of 2011, some Iraqi analysts say the government faces much the same problem Washington once did. That is, how to fight against a war of attrition waged by opponents able to recruit on the basis of communal affiliations that can trump national identity.
"Attrition operations are what forced the American forces to seek political solutions and create ways to succeed, such as relying on the [Sunni] Awakenings, which enabled them to deal with the local [Sunni] environments," says Ibrahim al-Sumaidi, an independent Iraq analyst in Baghdad.
"But what Al-Maliki has done has been to exacerbate the political rivalries in the 'hot zones', particularly the Sunni areas," Sumaidi adds. "He destroyed the Awakenings project and managed the army as one would run a militia."
The challenge now for the Iraqi government is how to learn from the mistakes it has made in the north fast enough to prevent the ISIL from progressing further. The fighting strength of the ISIL is widely estimated to be some 3,000 to 5,000 men but, so far, that relatively small number has managed to put the Iraqi army very much on the back foot.